In a show of feminist solidarity, a group of forty Israeli women posed nude in support of Aliaa Elmahdy, a female Egyptian blogger and activist who had posted an online naked photo of herself to protest, among other things, Egypt’s objectification of woman as sex objects.
While such an act in the Western world would engender little more than a passing yawn, in Egypt it touched off a firestorm of debate, with Elmahdy’s defenders calling her “heroic” and a “revolutionary,” while others have dismissed her as an “attention-seeker, a disgrace or a pervert.”
While the central issues of the controversy swirled around the ramifications Aliaa’s naked frame would have on the future course of societal values in Egypt, others were more centered toward the aesthetic. As one prominent Egyptian blogger said of the picture, “The lighting is awful and the composition is dreadful. Break all the social boundaries you want, but don’t call it art.”
For Elmahdy, a 20-year-old self-professed secular, liberal, feminist, vegetarian, individualist Egyptian, she was simply “echoing screams against a society of violence, racism, sexism, sexual harassment and hypocrisy” when she posted her nude self-portrait on her blog in October.
For Or Tepler, a 28-year-old Israeli and self-described “leftist and a seeker of peace,” she was outraged that Elmahdy had become the victim of countless abusive comments and death threats for having the temerity to show her all on Egyptian cyberspace.
So in an attempt to demonstrate that women are more than just eye candy for men, Tepler organized a photo shoot in which dozens of Israeli women posed nakedly defiant in front of a large sign that read “Homage to Aliaa Elmahdy: Sisters in Israel,” and “Love without Limits.”
However, while love may have no limits, apparently there were limits to how much skin the Israeli women were willing to expose, as any intimate body parts were carefully shielded by the large sign and crossed arms.
Nevertheless, Tepler was highly confident that the photo event had served as an opportunity for women “to show support in a non-violent and legitimate way for a woman who is just like us – young, ambitious, full of dreams and evidently has a developed sense of humor.”
Elmahdy’s apparent sense of humor, however, may be lost on those Egyptians currently embroiled in the midst of a cultural, religious and political war between those who envision a liberal, secular state and those who advocate an Islamist one.
The first battle in that war is slated to begin November 28, 2011, as Egyptians vote in the first of a series of parliamentary elections that will continue in stages through March 2012 and culminate in a presidential vote in 2013.
Egypt’s liberal secularists, already facing long electoral odds against better organized and more popular Islamist and Salafist parties, rightly fear the effect the Elmahdy controversy will have on their already slim electoral chances.
After all, Tunisia, which like Egypt has a large secular elite, just witnessed in October the Islamist Ennahda Party win more than 40% of the vote in that nation’s first parliamentary election, making it the dominant political power in Tunisia’s nascent democracy.
As one Egyptian secularist said, “Egyptian liberals will now be seen as pro-nudity,” while another complained that Elmahdy had “done nothing but allow the conservatives to have one more reason to call for an Islamic state.”
As if on cue, Egypt’s Islamists and Salafists have quickly pointed to Elmahdy’s photos as a concrete example of the detrimental effect liberal secularist beliefs will have on Egyptian morality, an argument that has garnered widespread support in a country where nearly 70% of Egyptians believe the country’s laws should strictly follow the teachings of the Koran.
To be fair, the Islamists have clearly etched their vision of proper Egyptian feminine behavior long before Elmahdy gained notoriety. In April Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiyya, one of Egypt’s leading Islamic groups, called for the establishment of a Saudi-style modesty police to combat “immoral” behavior in public areas.
In November Hazem Saleh Abu Ismail, a leading Egyptian presidential candidate and Muslim cleric, said he supported “Islamic dress” for women, and when asked what would happen to a woman wearing a bikini on the beach, he responded, “She would be arrested.”
So, given the political pummeling the secularists were absorbing, it wasn’t too surprising that many Egyptian liberals have tried to distance themselves from Elmahdy, quickly pointing out that she was not part of the revolutionary activities in Tahrir Square that saw the downfall of the Mubarak regime.
For her part, Elmahdy wasn’t entirely happy about being thrown under the bus, posting on her website: “Where is the democracy and liberalism they preach to the world? They only feed what the public wants to hear for their political ambitions.”
Of course, Elmahdy has her fair share of defenders. Nawal Al-Saadawi, a leading Egyptian feminist has said, “Women in any society are the key to the future, so when they are seen as objects the whole society loses. This isn’t the Egyptian way…The success of women can be seen in any revolution. You can’t have a revolution without women.”
Unfortunately, that theory hasn’t gained traction in Egypt where the post-Mubarak revolution has been moving forward with a limited role being played by Egyptian women, evidenced by the fact that no women were included on the committee that drafted Egypt’s transitional constitutional declaration.
Moreover, new elections laws have done away with the Mubarak-era quotas, which allocated 64 seats in Egypt’s parliament for women. While new law requires political parties to field at least some female candidates, some women have complained that their parties are placing them on difficult-to-win election lists.
Of course, it should be noted that life for Egyptian women under Mubarak was quite oppressive in its own right. For example, women could not marry men of other faiths; leave the country without the permission of their husbands; divorce with the approval of their husbands; or pray in the main halls of mosques alongside men.
However, those abuses, which occurred under a secular regime, promise to grow only worse with the advent of Islamists and Salafists to power. In fact, early signs of their oppressive agenda have been on display in their own election campaigns.
Most notably, some Islamist parties have shown their contempt for women by simply airbrushing them out of the way. In one case, an Islamist party substituted the face of a female candidate for that of her husband. In another case, the Salafist al-Nour Party had campaign posters that showed photographs of seven bearded candidates on its list for one district, but replaced the image of its lone female candidate with a picture of a rose, explaining that since she wears a veil there was no point in showing her picture.
For Aliaa Elmahdy and Or Tepler, albeit for far differing reasons, it remains to be seen if there was any point in showing their pictures as well.
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